RTRL.32: The Association Between Music Aptitude of Elementary Students and Their Biological Parents (Guerrini, 2005)


Guerrini, S. C. (2005). An investigation of the association between the music aptitude of elementary students and their biological parents. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 24(1), 27-33.

What did the researcher want to know?

Is there an association between the music aptitude of children and the music aptitude of their biological parents?

What did the researcher do?

Guerrini compared the music aptitude test scores of 88 elementary school students to those of their biological parents. To measure the children’s music aptitude, their elementary music teacher administered the Primary Measures of Music Audiation (PMMA) or the Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation (IMMA) during the students’ regular music class time. Both PMMA and IMMA are published music aptitude tests for children developed by Edwin E. Gordon. To measure the parents’ music aptitude, Guerrini administered the Advanced Measures of Music Audiation (AMMA) to any parent who volunteered to participate. The AMMA is a published music aptitude test for adolescents and adults, also developed by Gordon. Scoring of all tests resulted in measurements of tonal aptitude and rhythm aptitude, as well as a composite music aptitude scores, for each child and parent. Guerrini then completed statistical analyses to compare children’s music aptitude scores to those of their biological parents.

What did the researcher find?

Guerrini found no significant association between children’s music aptitude test scores and those of their biological parents. Tonal, rhythm, and composite scores were categorized into low, medium, and high aptitude groupings for both children and parents, and there were no significant relationships between these categorizations. For example, parents with high tonal aptitude were no more likely to have children with high tonal aptitude than were parents with medium or low tonal aptitude, and a child with low tonal aptitude was equally likely to have a parent with high or low tonal aptitude.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Many persons assume that musical ability is inherited from one’s parents. However, Guerrini’s results do not support this assumption. Those who believe musical ability is inherited tend to conflate music aptitude and music achievement. While music aptitude is one’s potential to achieve musically, music achievement is one’s observable musical ability at a given point in time. In order for one’s music aptitude to manifest as music achievement, it must be nurtured in a rich and supportive musical environment. It is probable that parents who demonstrate high music achievement are likely to provide the type of supportive musical environment that will nurture their children’s music aptitude. This may result in higher levels of observable music achievement among their children than children who lack a rich musical environment at home, making it appear that music is “in their blood.” However, in terms of the “nature versus nurture” debate, “the results of [Guerrini’s] study seem to point to the nurture theory” (p. 31).

For an overview of Gordon’s theory of music aptitude and the published music aptitude tests he developed, click to read his monographs entitled Music Aptitude and Related Tests: An Introduction and Continuing Studies in Music Aptitudes.

RTRL.21: Teachers’ Interpretations of Music Aptitude (Reynolds & Hyun, 2004)


Reynolds, A. M., & Hyun, K. (2004). Understanding music aptitude: Teachers’ interpretations. Research Studies in Music Education, 23, 18-31.

What did the researchers want to know?

How do teachers understand the concept of music aptitude and estimate their students’ musical potential? How do these estimations compare to results of a standardized music aptitude test?

What did the researchers do?

Reynolds and Hyun’s study involved five general music teachers in the U.S. and five classroom teachers with music concentrations in South Korea who had never previously administered a standardized music aptitude test to their students. Both groups of teachers were asked to estimate their students’ music aptitudes (tonal and rhythm) and to describe their process and experience in doing so. Then the teachers administered Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation (IMMA), a standardized test of elementary-age children’s music aptitude that includes tonal and rhythm subtests. Finally, each teacher completed an interview with one of the researchers.

What did the researchers find?

Teachers based their judgements of students’ music aptitudes on observable factors, such as ability to sing in tune or move to a steady beat. Their estimations also featured identification of the students they perceived as having the highest and lowest tonal/rhythm aptitudes in the class.

Without being asked to, all ten of the teachers compared their initial estimations of students’ music aptitudes to the IMMA results and were “surprised, shocked, and confused” by discrepancies between the two (p. 23). For example, one teacher in South Korea said, “I am shocked that a student who cannot even sing one note scores high on the test” (p. 23). Similarly, one American teacher puzzled, “If you have high tonal aptitude, how could you not know how to use a singing voice?” and was stumped that another student who “sings beautifully” and “likes to improvise” did not score high in comparison with the other students (p. 24). Teachers also admitted to allowing non-musical behaviors, such as participation or general academic achievement, influence their estimations of students’ music aptitude. “A student with a bad attitude I estimated low; I was surprised when the student scored high,” one South Korean teacher reflected (p. 24).

Ultimately, the teachers came to realize that their assumptions about music aptitude were based on students’ prior achievement in class, which does not necessarily reveal their true potential. As one American teacher reflected, “Estimates show who is achieving well, even if they didn’t do well on the test. [Pause.] Don’t give up on them just because they scored low, because they can still achieve” (p. 26).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Students’ demonstrated musical achievement may not reflect their true potential. Rather than relying on our observations and subjective assumptions, a published test of music aptitude can more accurately and objectively measure each student’s musical potential, which can be helpful in identifying students who may be under-achieving.

The differentiation between music achievement and music aptitude was described extensively by Edwin E. Gordon. In his theorizing about music aptitude, Gordon posited that every individual has some level of music aptitude and thus can learn to make music with some level of success. By determining each student’s approximate level of music aptitude in various musical dimensions, the teacher can adapt instruction so that each student is appropriately challenged and thus can experience musical success and continued growth.

For an overview of Gordon’s theory of music aptitude and the published music aptitude tests he developed, click to read his monographs entitled Music Aptitude and Related Tests: An Introduction and Continuing Studies in Music Aptitudes.

RTRL.03: “Audiation-based Improvisation Techniques and Elementary Instrumental Students’ Music Achievement” (Azzara, 1993)


Azzara, C. D. (1993). Audiation-based improvisation techniques and elementary instrumental students’ music achievement. Journal of Research in Music Education, 41(4), 328-342.

What did the researcher want to know?

What effect does an improvisation curriculum have on instrumental students’ music achievement?

What did the researcher do?

Azzara (1993) studied 66 fifth grade students from two different schools who were in their second year of instrumental music study.  Students at each school were randomly assigned to either the control group or the treatment group.  Both groups received instruction using Jump Right In: The Instrumental Music Series, which utilizes a “sound before sight” learning process and includes tonal pattern and rhythm pattern instruction.  In addition, the treatment group also regularly engaged in improvisation activities, which included “(a) learning selected repertoire of songs by ear, (b) developing a vocabulary of tonal syllables and rhythm syllables, and (c) improvising with their voices and with their instruments tonic, dominant, and subdominant tonal patterns within the context of major tonality, and (d) improvising with their voices and with their instruments macrobeat, microbeat, division, elongation, and rest rhythm patterns within the context of duple meter” (p. 335).

What did the researcher find?

At the end of the 27-week period, Azzara (1993) recorded each student individually performing three etudes: one prepared without teacher assistance, one prepared with teacher assistance, and one sight-read.  Four judges rated each recording for tonal performance, rhythm performance, and expressive performance.  Statistical analysis of these ratings revealed that the students in the treatment group (who had experienced improvisation activities) had significantly higher composite etude performance scores than students who had not received instruction incorporating improvisation.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Having experiences with improvisation can help improve students’ performance achievement.  Just as speaking and conversing enhance the skills of reading and writing language, improvising music can enhance students’ music reading skills and performance of notated music. “When improvisation was included as a part of elementary instrumental music instruction, students were provided with opportunities to develop an increased understanding of harmonic progression through the mental practice and physical performance of tonal and rhythm patterns with purpose and meaning. Improvisation ability appears to transfer to a student’s clearer comprehension of the tonal, rhythmic, and expressive elements of music in an instrumental performance from notation” (p. 339).

Suggestions for Teaching Improvisation:

(From Azzara’s 1999 MEJ article “An Aural Approach to Improvisation”)

  • First and foremost, “use your ears. To develop improvisational skill, don’t rely on notation to remember music; rely on your ears” (p. 23).
  • Provide students with opportunities to listen to music (e.g., performed by the teacher, recorded music) in a wide variety of styles, tonalities (i.e., modes), and meters.
  • Develop a repertoire of simple tunes that students can sing and play by ear.
  • Teach students to sing and play basslines of simple tunes by ear.
  • Chant simple rhythm patterns for students to echo (chant/play) to develop their rhythmic “vocabulary” and sing simple tonal patterns for students to echo (sing/play) to develop their tonal “vocabulary.”

Examples of Rhythm Patterns and Tonal Patterns:

  • Learn tonal solfege and rhythm syllables by ear. These systems help students organize, comprehend, and read/write music.
  • “Improvise (1) rhythm patterns with and without rhythm syllables, (2) tonal patterns with and without tonal syllables, (3) rhythm patterns to familiar bass lines, and (4) rhythms on specific harmonic tones from particular harmonic progressions [e.g., to familiar tunes]. Improvise a melody by choosing notes that outline the harmonic functions of the progression (i.e., notes chosen from arpeggios) and perform them on each beat” (p. 23).
  • Play around with embellishing melodies, harmony parts, chord tones, and basslines.

Azzara’s 2011 TEDx Talk on Improvisation

Other Helpful Resources:

Developing Musicianship Through Improvisation

Jump Right In: The Instrumental Series